Friday, March 22, 2013

Hamlet, Brat of Denmark

"Hamlet" -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru April 13

                        Paul Giamatti and the cast of "Hamlet." Photo by Joan Marcus.

I’ve seen all sorts of Hamlets. I’ve seen morose Hamlets and intellectual Hamlets, flighty Hamlets and swash-buckling Hamlets (well, only one of those), but I can’t say I’ve ever seen a bratty Hamlet before, but that’s essentially what we have in Yale Repertory Theatre’s current production of one of the Bard’s greatest tragedies, a production featuring Yale School of Drama graduate and film star Paul Giamatti.

A definition is wanted (if only to clarify). Brat: child; specifically, an ill-mannered, annoying child. In other words, we get a Hamlet more bad boy than brooding prince. And yet, it didn’t have to be this way, because there are moments, many moments, when Giamatti delivers an intense, even riveting, Prince of Denmark, and then, under the direction of the Theatre’s artistic director, James Bundy, Giamatti goes for the sight gag or delivers his lines with excessive drollery. The lines and the gags garner laughs, but at what expense?

Three moments, of many, stand out as examples of an idea gone awry. The first is at the end of the bedroom scene in which Hamlet has slain the pontificating Polonius (Gerry Bamman) and taken his mother to task for wedding her late husband’s brother. It’s a powerful, psycho-sexual scene, and Giamatti and Lisa Emery, as Queen Gertrude, create a marvelous tension, all to no avail, for in the final moment, as Hamlet is removing the body from the bed chamber he pauses, gives it a double-beat for effect, and then says “Good night, mother” in a spoiled-brat voice that says, “See what I’ve just done?” The audience laughs. With that, everything that had been accomplished in the scene collapses into farce.

                            Paul Giamatti and Lisa Emery. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Another “wrong” moment. Hamlet is brought before King Claudius (Marc Kudisch) after Hamlet has killed Pelonious. The prince is handcuffed to a chair (a standard office chair on casters – and, yes, Giamatti will roll around the stage on it). The king and the prince stare at each other, and then Kudisch, who otherwise gives us a powerful picture of a man beset by his deeds, takes a deep breath and then says, “Now, Hamlet,” as if he is addressing a recalcitrant schoolboy. Giamatti mugs and the audience laughs. The moment generates the idea that Claudius is about to give Hamlet a good spanking for having had his hand caught in the cookie jar. Again – farce or drama – what do we have here?

The final moment? The sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes (Tommy Schrider). This is the resolution of all that has come before, the final reckoning, and yet (who is responsible for the stage business? Director? Star? Who knows?), the opportunity for a vaudeville sight gag can’t be passed up. On the second engagement between the two combatants, Hamlet manages a final “hit” with his rapier between Laertes’ legs. He wiggles the blade a bit for effect. Again, drama or farce? Audience laughter. Laughter? Where’s the tension, the sense that a great tragedy is about to occur?

                            Paul Giamatti and Tommy Schrider. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Giamatti is a fine actor, and he seems to understand the true nature of the character he is portraying, a character that is not above sarcasm and double-entendre when it serves his purpose, a character who is torn by the question of when (or even if) to take revenge for his father’s murder. But the mugging, the sight gags, the sly looks out at the audience, the red high-top sneakers he wears with his tuxedo, the knife he carries while proclaiming he bears a sword, all diminish what might have been a bravura performance. The problem, and it is a problem, is that the audience is too often asked to shift gears, or rather, to down-shift from tragedy to comedy (when comedy is not warranted), creating a “where are we?” feeling that argues against engagement.

This is all the more apparent because the rest of the cast plays it straight. Bamman’s Polonious is a delight…a wise fool who cannot help but add ten words when one will do. As already mentioned, Kudisch’s Claudius is, except for that one Peck’s bad boy moment, riveting, although as the ghost of the slain king he is hampered by having tendrils of smoke drifting off his shoulders as if someone has dropped a lit cigarette onto him – not a very impressive (actually distracting) special effect. Brooke Parks, as Ophelia, is a delight from her first scene to her last, which she carries off with aplomb, and Emery’s Gertrude is a complete characterization of a woman torn by doubt and nascent guilt, though the drunk scene – yes, she’s swilling from a bottle – is a bit much.

All in all, Yale Rep’s production is a study in contrasts, and the contrasts are more off-putting than intriguing. It’s not exactly clear what era the play is set in…late 19th Century? Mid-20th Century? Based on the garb and armament of Fortinbras’ soldiers, today? And as Giamatti slips back and forth between Hamlet as a tortured prince and Hamlet as a guest on a late-night talk show, the confusion is reinforced.

There’s a lot to like about the Rep’s current production, but there’s also a lot to question. To be this…or to be that…that is the question, a question that this production ultimately doesn’t answer because it tries to be too many things at the same time.

“Hamlet” runs through April 13. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Do-Wop Saccharine Dream

Life Could Be A Dream -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru March 30

                      The cast of "Life Could Be A Dream." Standing: Matt Densky 
                      & Rob Rodems; seated: Aaron Catano, Sheila Coyle & Evan Siegel

Are you a child of the 60s? If so, you may want to wend your way out to Ivoryton where “Life Could Be A Dream” recently opened at the Playhouse…or, if you don’t want to make the trip, find those old 45s packed away in boxes in the attic, get yourself a record player with a stack-spindle, and trip your way down Memory Lane listening to your past as you consider what Obamacare might mean for you.

“Dream” is essentially a revue, with song after song from the late 50s and early 60s, a time when the country was shaking off the placid doldrums of the post-war years and starting to question the materialistic largesse that did not quite mask the society’s racism and sexism. If rebellion was not yet in the air, there were rumblings, and while elders shook their heads at the “new” music filling the airways, a music that seemed somehow not fit for good white folks to listen to, what they were listening to was saccharine compared to what would follow. It is this saccharine that is revisited in “Life Could Be A Dream,” and as with all things sweet, you have to be careful not to overdose.

“Life…,” written and created by (what’s the difference?) Roger Bean, and directed by the Playhouse’s executive/artistic director, Jacqueline Hubbard, is a light, frothy tale of two…no three…no four young men who dream of stardom, if only they can win a local talent contest and secure a record contract. They rehearse in a basement, nagged by an unseen mother who wishes her son would get a job, and are visited by a pretty little miss who has a crush on one of the boys, a mechanic who happens to work in her father’s garage. The rehearsals allow for the introduction of many of the songs…the love interest opens up additional song possibilities…and when other songs need to be sung, well, logic just flies out the window. We’re not talking “Show Boat” here.

This is “A Chorus Line” writ small, “Grease” without the gumption and grit. There are moments when “Life…” attempts to be satiric, but the book really doesn’t lend itself to such efforts. There are other moments when it strives to capture an era, but the attempts are superficial. The basic problem is, there’s no bite to the piece, it floats on the surface by offering up hit songs from a by-gone era, hoping that that will be enough to please and entertain. The 45s fall, one after another, and you nod and say, oh yes, I remember that song, but context is essentially absent.

The cast, as directed by Hubbard, often seems to be leering at the audience more than acting. The style is reminiscent of how skits were played on the “Carol Burnette Show.” Aaron Catano’s Denny mugs and preens, a poor man’s Danny Zuko, Matt Densky’s Eugene takes “nerd” to a new dimension (and, admittedly, got a lot of laughs for his efforts), and Rob Rodems’ Wally suggestively prances (he’s a Christian choir boy, so what would you expect). The only two who play it relatively straight are Evan Siegel (think Lyle Waggoner) as Skip and Sheila Coyle as Lois (and the unseen mother).

Essentially, this is a show built on other people’s talent, the people who created songs such as “Get a Job,” “Mama Don’t Allow,” “Fool’s Fall in Love” and “I Only Have Eyes For You.” The songs are all it really has going for it (unless you’re into the “Burnette” thing -- a good deal of the audience was when I saw the production) and although many of them are delivered with verve and style that’s not enough to create a totally engaging hour and a half of theater.

Roger Bean obviously wrote something…there’s the dialogue…but he didn’t create much. Other people did, and he accessed the rights to their efforts. “Life Could Be A Dream” could have been so much more than it is. So we are left with songs, ably sung, and fill-in dialogue. Saccharine. You can trek out to Ivoryton, or dig up those old 45s…your choice.

“Life Could Be A Dream” runs through March 30. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

Monday, March 11, 2013

A 'Spirited' Romp

"Play it Again, Sam"  -- Playhouse on Park --  Thru March 20

                   Zane Johnson, Dan Matisa and Marnye Young. Photo by Rich Wagner

There are two spirits wandering around on stage up at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, where “Play it Again, Sam” is currently running. The first is in the script, and he is none other than Humphrey Bogart (Ted D’Agostino), the iconic tough-guy Hollywood star of the 30s and 40s, known for his roles in such classic films as “Casablanca,”  “The Maltese Falcon” and “The African Queen.” The other spirit is that of the play’s author, Woody Allen, the prolific actor, screenwriter and director who appeared in the play on Broadway in 1969 and subsequently in the 1972 film. Unlike the Bogey spirit, the Allen spirit is a bit intrusive, and at least one member of the audience found he had to keep holding mini-exorcisms to cleanse the spirit from his mind.

The play, a typical Allen exercise in self-abnegation and weltschmerz, finds film critic Allan Felix (Zane Johnson) at loose ends after his wife of two years, Nancy (Bethany Fitzgerald), leaves him because she wants to “live.” Rushing to hold Felix’s hand as he ping-pongs between false bravado and abject self-pity are his best friend, Dick (Dan Matisa) and his wife, Linda (Marnye Young).

                         Bethany Fitzgerald and Zane Johnson. Photo by Rich Wagner

What follows is the couple’s attempts to get Felix back on the dating merry-go-round, with Bogey dropping by occasionally to evaluate Felix’s efforts with the opposite sex and to give some hard-boiled advice about the best way to handle dames (that often involves some slapping around and an occasional bullet or two). Felix goes on a series of ruinous dates with a variety of women (all played with brio by Fitzgerald) who, for one reason or another, find Felix less than charming (they either laugh uproariously or run away screaming). Felix’s Virgil on this odyssey into dating hell is Linda, and the two soon come to have feelings for each other, feelings that eventually lead to Felix coming to grips with his sexuality, his divorce and his moral code.

                           Ted D'Agostino and Zane Johnson. Photo by Rich Wagner

As directed by Russ Treyz, the staging is heavy on semi-slapstick, with the actors playing their roles for broad laughs, but the dialogue is pure Woody Allen, and it is difficult not to hear him…and see him…there on the stage, even going so far as to remember how he delivered a certain line versus how Johnson delivers it or how he handled a bit of business versus how Johnson handles it, which is, of course, unfair to Johnson, but there it is.

For those not Allen-haunted, Johnson’s performance is, if lacking a certain rueful morbidness, certainly entertaining and often quite hilarious. He’s ably supported by Matisa and Young and is bedeviled (and then finally entranced) by the multiple women Fitzgerald portrays (her best is the art gallery lady who’s planning to commit suicide on Saturday). D’Agostino does a fair Bogey imitation (although, again, no one can deliver the lines the way Bogey did). All in all, “Play it Again, Sam” is a refreshing evening of theater that often tickles the funny-bone. Your familiarity with the film (or the original Broadway production) may flavor your experience a bit, but the cast essentially makes the play its own.

“Play it Again, Sam” runs through March 20. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900 X 10 or go to  

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"Man in a Case" -- Mesmerizing and Multi-faceted

"Man in a Case" -- Hartford Stage -- Thru March 24

                    Tymberly Canale, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Aaron Mattocks
                    Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Have you ever seen “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”? “Nosferatu”? “M”? “Battleship Potemkin”? Well, if you have seen any of these films, or any of the other expressionist films that came out of Russia and Germany in the 1920s or early 1930s, you will experience a bit a deja vu when you go see “Man in a Case,” which recently opened at Hartford Stage.

Based on two short stories by Anton Chekhov, “Man in a Case” stars Mikhail Baryshnikov, but it really stars the Big Dance Theater production team, for what we have here is not so much dramatic theater as a multi-media paean to techniques that changed the cinema world and, in the process, changed how we tell stories. For some it might be off-putting, but for others it will be mesmerizing.

Theater traditionalist might wish to stay away, but for those with an open mind, who understand that for most of the twentieth century the “image” has ruled – an image that can be distorted, re-framed, duplicated, twisted and diffused – the evening offers much to think about, enjoy and embrace, for “Man in a Case” is not so much a dramatic presentation (although there is drama) as a comment on technique in storytelling, that is, an assumption that a story can be told in many different ways at the same time, through multiple images that comment on and, at the same time, contradict, what is happening. In essence, “Man in a Case” is all about point of view, or, rather, multiple points of view.

The first story – there are two, linked together by the briefest of segues – deals with Byelikov (Baryshnikov), a teacher of Greek who lives in a small Russian village and is ruled by rules. If something has not been ordained by the powers that be then it is dangerous, and going against it will bring about trouble. He is a man whose soul is configured by the arbitrary rules of the state, a man who cannot relate to his fellow human beings because diktats dictate his life. He locks himself in at night (multiple locks) only to toss and turn in his bed as phantoms (kudos to video designer Jeff Larson and lighting designer, Tony award-winning Jennifer Tipton) of the dictatorial state haunt him. And then he meets a young woman (Tymberley Canale) who offers him the possibility of human contact, contact he ultimately rejects because she is just too full of rule-breaking life (she is a dancer and, of course, the teacher can’t dance -- given the casting, a bit of dramatic irony), plus his association with her draws unwanted attention -- in the form of a scurrilous cartoon distributed liberally throughout the village…and the audience -- that makes him a local laughingstock. He retreats to his apartment and, in despair, dies.

That’s the essence of the story, but it’s not the essence of what “Man in a Case” offers its audience, for there are images upon images that evoke emotions beyond those engendered by the play’s words and the teacher’s plight, projected on multiple screens, images of laughing faces, images of a knife continually cutting into a meal but never succeeding in the process, images of school children endlessly walking up stairs, images of the teacher standing before a door, seen through a spy-hole, as he attempts to visit his fellow teachers – a visit that is ultimately devoid of human contact -- and images of the young woman laughing at the teacher, projected on multiple screens in his room. And then there is the final, diffused image of rain falling on trees (with appropriate moody sound, compliments of Tel Blow) in a forest, projected on a back screen, (Oh, how Russian, and perhaps an allusion to an opening scene in “Dr. Zhivago”), as mourners gather under black umbrellas at the teacher’s funeral.

                          The cast of "Man in a Case" Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The second story is even simpler: an educated man is charged with working his family’s farm to pay off a debt, but when he travels to the local village he meets and falls in love with a married woman. The agony is, the woman and her husband befriend him, so he is in constant contact with them. The wife slowly becomes neurotic (captured by tapping-finger images) and is eventually sent off to a clinic to be tended to, her unrequited lover bidding her good-by in her train car, riding the train for one station stop, then detraining and walking home. He has rejected did the protagonist in the first story…because of “rules.”

Ah, but again there is so much more here in this second story. There is a lovely ballet of hands between the man and woman, captured by a video camera set on the table where they sit, plus close-ups of the woman’s hands (again, via a video camera) as the agony of their unrequited love is dealt with, as well as a dramatic pas de deux at the end of the story as the two lovers lay on a checkerboard stage floor, their movements (a la Busby Berkely) captured from above by a camera, their limbs seeking, their bodies aching for, yet never achieving, full contact, creating stark images of physical, emotional and psychological need and want. It’s ballet, but ballet restricted by the confines of the relationship, and, as directed by Big Dance Theater’s Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, it’s brilliant…and poignant.

                   Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

“Man in a Case” is an exercise in verbal and visual storytelling, with the visual trumping the verbal. You may come away not remembering the specifics of the two tales, but you will certainly come away with many of the visuals embedded in your mind. Is that theater? Well, I guess that’s dictated by what we expect and demand of theater. For me, the final “dance” is worth the price of admission...totally unexpected and totally fulfilling: naked need, desire and want captured in physical movement. Good stuff.

“Man in a Case” runs through March 24. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to

Sunday, March 3, 2013

"Distracted" is Riveting

"Distracted" -- Square One Theatre -- Thru March 16

                                              Lillian Garcia and Pat Leo

With theater, you just never know. You go to a name theater to see a first-rate cast in a production by a big-name playwright and you leave unmoved, if even that, and then you settle in at a local playhouse to see a play you’ve never heard of with a cast that has never trod the Broadway boards and are basically blown away. Go figure. You just never know where theatrical lightening will strike, but it has certainly struck at Stratford’s Square One Theatre, where Lisa Loomer’s “Distracted” has recently opened. It’s not a perfect production (is there such a thing?), but it is eminently satisfying and entertaining.

Smartly directed by Square One’s artistic director, Tom Holehan, this dramatic analysis of our distracted society in which we spend more time on the Internet, on our smart phones, surfing the Internet, downloading, uploading, texting and tweeting than simply touching, feeling and listening to each other, is humorous, bittersweet and biting.

What we have here is a modern family beset by modern problems, among them an apparently hyperactive (or just very creative) male child who is causing problems at home and at school, problems that may be just those that boys cause because they are boys or by the dark shadow of Attention Deficit Disorder, that vaguely defined mental disorder that might be real or just a psychological term for boy-hood, a term that has been re- and re-defined by the “professionals” based on the drugs that are available to counteract exuberance, based on articles published in respected medical journals, based on research funded by the marketers of the drugs that make millions of dollars when said professionals prescribe them. Conflict of interest? Of course not. But, if you are of a certain age, ask yourself (as one of the characters in the play asks), how did we (i.e., those born before ADD was defined) get through adolescence and puberty without drugs?

The boy’s teacher is complaining … something has to be done. He’s disruptive, can’t sit in his seat for more than five minutes, is moody, then aggressive. Mom? Dad? Do something!

Mom (the marvelous Lillian Garcia) is an interior designer who has opted out of her high-end job to stay at home to be with her son, Jesse (Michael Mulligan), while Dad (Pat Leo) does his nine-to-five thing, then comes home to relax by flicking on the TV to watch things explode. Jesse (who is heard throughout the play but seen only in the final moments) doesn’t want to get into his pajamas, sasses his parents and uses the F-word with shocking frequency. Dad says he’s just a boy; Mom is not so sure, and seeks guidance, which takes her to a series of psychologists, doctors and New Age gurus, all of whom wish to rice and dice the child, driven by their specific disciplines, in order to prescribe a CURE -- for childhood, be it a restricted diet, reward-denial-based therapy or drugs -- excuse me, medication -- and here we come to Loomer’s main thesis: why are we drugging – or medicating -- our eight- and nine-year-old children? It’s a compelling question. Given a society that rewards conformity and obedience, what is to be done with a child (or millions of children) who do not wish to conform? Loomer suggests that our current solution is a bit Orwellian.

                                           Lillian Garcia and Michael Mulligan

Holehan has wisely grasped the nature of Loomer’s message and script and in his direction has emphasized the non-stop, empty-message-driven nature of the society in which we live (or merely exist) by having scenes press against each other as if there isn’t enough time for actors to get on or off the stage, or, in some cases, to shift from one character to another. The pace is frenetic, with scenes truncated because, well, there’s another scene that needs to be dealt with, to be seen, before we go to another scene…but there’s another scene waiting, so hurry up and get through this scene…all while Garcia, as Mama, attempts to deal with the pressure of a balky child, a distracted and disaffected husband, pill-popping neighbors dealing with their own half-acres of psychological hell and professionals who are eager to prescribe rather than cure…or merely comfort.

This whirligig of scenes, emotions and needs requires actors to take on multiple roles, and Michelle Duncan, Betty McCready and James Leaf (who does several delightful yet frightening Jekyll-Hyde turns) are well up to the task, as is Alanna Delgado, who as Natalie, the next-door teenager who babysits and cuts herself, provides some chilling, emotionally riveting moments.

Problems? Not many. There are some lighting cues that still need to be worked out and there are times when the script is less drama and more research, but these are minor irritatants. In all, “Distracted” will keep you riveted…and make you think about what we are doing to the next generation. It will also make you remember the “wild” kids of your youth, the ones who seemed to be out of control but somehow made it through childhood to become functioning adults. In essence, “Distracted” asks us to consider whether we, as a society, have slowly become unable to deal with our obstreperous offspring in any other way than to squelch exuberance, creativity and experimentation with mind-altering drugs.

“Distracted” runs through March 16. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or go to